This is the second of a two-part post on storytelling — what it is and is not.
As I said last time, connecting with another person is one of the highest forms of social being for humans. At the heart of it is good storytelling. When I’m telling you a story, and you’re engaged in it, you match your brain waves to mine. If I’m telling you a story with a familiar structure, your brain actually anticipates what I’m going to say next. The point is that that’s good for both parties. We want to be in sync with other people. It’s how we communicate well with others and it’s why good storytelling is so powerful. That feeling of synchronization is a profoundly satisfying one. We want to hear stories, especially ones where we can guess what’s going to happen next, a split second before we’re told.
But let’s look deeper into what a story is and is not. Is the following a story?
I met a beautiful woman at a party the other day. I shouldn’t have been at the party because it was at the house of someone who doesn’t like me. But the woman was beautiful.
That’s an anecdote. Here’s how you turn it into a story: I met a beautiful woman at a party the other day. I fell in love at first sight—and she with me. But when I learned her name, she turned out to be from the family of my sworn enemies. Nonetheless, we married in secret. Meeting a group of my enemies in the market the next day, I got into a fight with one of them and killed him. Now I’m banished from the city, and my wife is being pressured to marry someone else.
That’s a story, or the first part of one, and you probably recognize it: Romeo and Juliet.
You probably know the rest of the story, too: Juliet takes a drug to make it look like she’s dead in order to escape having to marry the other guy. Romeo doesn’t get the word in time, finds her apparently dead, and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and, finding Romeo’s body, kills herself. It’s a tragedy, and a story that still grabs people, five hundred years later.
Stories Are Not about You
So what can leaders and others do with Romeo and Juliet all these years later? How do we put stories to work for us?
Leaders must be authentic; that’s table stakes for leadership. If you’re caught being something you’re not or concealing something contrary to your image, you’re toast. So many, many leaders tell stories about themselves. But that’s a mistake. You don’t necessarily have to reveal your personal secrets to be authentic; you have to reveal your passion. The stories you tell should always make your followers, your audience, your listeners the heroes, not you. That way they allow your tribe to project itself easily into the story you’re telling and they allow you to be a wise mentor or commentator. The success or failure, then, is theirs, not yours.
Stories Are Not Pretend
The final thing people most often misunderstand about storytelling has to do with story time, milk and cookies, and a rug you sat on in elementary school. Lots of people think that stories are simple, happy, trite fairy tales you tell to children. So when they hear “storytelling,” they think dopey or cute. First of all, many fairy tales are terrifying and contain dark truths about the human spirit and condition, so don’t underestimate them. Second, adults tell each other stories all the time, and these stories are not necessarily cute or trite, but they can be. Finally, stories loom much larger in our thinking than most people realize.
What are stories, really?
So what is a story? A structured way of looking at reality. A way that works for us because it matches the way our brains work.
Why should leaders tell stories? Because stories are interesting, they help people remember what you say, and they are a good way to convey information and emotion memorably. And they are so deeply ingrained in our thinking that they are the way we interpret reality.
Reality, in its raw, unfiltered, and ugly state, is chaotic. But we are not very good at dealing with chaos. Hence, we impose structures on our experiences of reality in order to make sense of it. We impose stories.
And that’s the real purpose of stories — they help us experience reality in a way that makes sense, that we can process, and that helps us cope. Stories are how we live our lives.